Author’s note: I’m attempting to develop a method for game analysis around irreducible game elements (gamels). This and all the other articles are a sort of log of my thought process, and are not definitive truths. Please feel free to react or comment in any way.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of game rules recently, partly due to Johan Huizinga’s influence and partly due to a “very small” project I’ve been investing my free time in recently.

Rules are what I manipulate when designing. Whether I’m tuning controls, scoring systems, writing a story or just thinking about a new super-cool gameplay, every design decision I make explicitly or implicitly affects one of the many rules that compose a video game.

As I’ve mentioned before, rules are abstract gamels. They can’t be “seen” or more generally “felt” by a human and are experienced only in an intellectual manner. For example, the force of gravity isn’t a rule in the physical world because its effect can be felt at any time, but a simulated force of gravity in a virtual game is a rule that applies to some objects in certain ways and can’t be experienced physically.

In terms of function, rules are punctual events that must be triggered. The event that triggers a rule can be anything.

This might seem confusing, since many rules seem “permanent”, like for our previous example of simulated gravity in physics-sandbox games, but it becomes apparent once you remember that “real time” games are actually a really fast succession of turns, in which case the “gravity” rule is triggered at the beginning of each turn (or frame).

Their sole purpose is “change”. Once triggered, a rule will change the state of another element (including rules). If a rule doesn’t change some element of the game we have no way of knowing it exists, and since it is an abstract object, it doesn’t exist at all.

Games need to have at least one rule to become dynamic systems. Put differently, static systems are not playable. Even if you make a dynamic system, not providing the player with input rules makes the system static even if it is has the possibility to be dynamic.

This occurs typically in video games, where the game system is virtual and requires an interface to be interacted with. Physical interfaces, like buttons and analogue controllers, become gamels once the game provides input rules that, when triggered by the physical controller, modify the state of a virtual gamel. If a physical controller is not present, then there is no way to interact with the game other than turning it on or off.

I hope I didn’t lose you there.

To sum up, every game needs at least one abstract gamel that describes how the system will evolve from state to state (e.g. win/lose). Video games require at least one abstract gamel linking one portion of the physical world to a virtual gamel.

From this conclusion, we can deduct one of the simplest video games possible:

“Press any button to win”

Wasn’t that fun?

Do, or do not. There is no try.